Friday, April 08, 2011

Shemini -- Parah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for March 21 2006, April 2007, March 2008, April 2009, and March 10 2010.

Thoughts on Jewish Leadership

I wish to devote this issue to a discussion of communal leadership, turning to a possible lesson from the parshat hashavua a bit later. Some weeks ago I learned of a difficult situation in a large Conservative synagogue in a prosperous American suburb, which had lost its rabbi under somewhat problematic circumstances, and they were searching for a way to continue. For about a year after the senior rabbi’s departure, the community had been led by the assistant rabbi, a man in his early 40’s. From the information I received, this rabbi was an unassuming but highly competent and talented person, with excellent skills: he taught well, led the prayers well, his sermons were passionate, interesting and illuminating, he was an excellent pastor who knew both how to draw people together and how to help them in times of personal crisis, and had previously helped the community to weather several painful upheavals in their communal life in as smooth a manner as possible.

But now the congregation was looking for a permanent senior rabbi, and is divided between two factions: on the one hand, those who wanted the assistant rabbi to continue, and even to assume the position of senior rabbi. Another faction, which included many of the major donors who were heavily represented on the synagogue board, wanted someone more “distinguished”—someone who would cut a more prominent public image, someone with fund-raising ability, charm, and “charisma,” who might, among other things, attract more members (and revenue) to the synagogue. One person was even heard to say that they should look for a “rock star” rabbi.

I had heard of the “super-rabbi” phenomenon. I have noticed Newsweek’s annual list of the “50 most prominent rabbis in the US,” and my instinctive reaction was that there was something twisted about the concept. Is “prominent” always better? Does a synagogue need a superstar as rabbi, or a teacher–scholar leader, who can inspire the adults to live richer Jewish lives and can help give the younger generation meaningful reasons for staying Jewish? Does one of the “50 most prominent” care more about the sick, the confused, the unhappy, those in need of a kind word or a bit of personal guidance rooted in our tradition? It seems to me that this “super-star” phenomenon represents the penetration of alien values, of the culture of celebrity, into the rabbinate, which ought to be governed by totally different criteria.

Those of us living in the Katamon-Talpiyot communities of Jerusalem have had our own experience with celebrity rabbis. I think of a young man of great charm and charisma, who at one point filled halls with crowds who came to hear him speak about the parshat ha-shavu’a—and in course of time was revealed to be a total charlatan, as well as an incorrigible womanizer, who abused his position to conduct multiple sexual affairs while building a new community meant to embody the best of Jewish and contemporary spiritual values, and who ultimately left the country in disgrace. More recently an Israeli rabbi of great charisma and influence was also revealed to be engaging in improper relations with his students and followers. Needless to say, not all “super-stars” engage in improper sexual activities, but there is a tendency for those with highly-inflated egos to feel that they are not subject to the norms that govern ordinary mortals, in both the sexual and other areas.

The twin problems—of “super-rabbis” and of coarse moneyed elements lacking in any real sense of Jewish values exerting excessive influence in Jewish communities—is not a new one. My grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi in the Bronx during the early decades of the 20th century, and himself reputedly a charismatic and popular preacher, was quoted as privately referring to the Trustees of his synagogue as “trust-thieves.” Going back even further: I recently translated a book, by historian Yaron Harel, about struggles concerning the position of Chief Rabbi (Hakham Bashi) in major communities of the Ottoman empire, such as Damascus, Baghdad and Aleppo. Time and again, one reads of gevirim using their influence to place in office rabbis whom they favored for one reason or another, while pious and honest rabbis who were more concerned with helping the poor and needy elements in the community had to struggle to keep their positions.

It seems to me clear beyond question that Judaism has always taught modesty and humility as cardinal qualities, even—or shall we say especially?—in leaders. One may start with Moses: והאיש משה ענו מאד (“and the man Moses was very humble”). The Talmud says that authentic Jews may be recognized by three qualities: בישנים, רחמנים, וגומלי חסדים —that they are shy (i.e., humble, self-effacing), compassionate, and performing acts of kindness to others. Rambam states that the judges in any Rabbinic court the needed to have the following seven qualities: “wisdom, modesty, fear of God, hatred of money, love of truth, to be beloved by the people, and good reputation (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2.7). A decent person does not seek honor: “One who pursues honor, honor eludes him; one who runs away from honor, honor pursues him.”

As it is only a few days after Purim, I will mention an idea from the Megillah. Haman’s most striking trait, even more than his irrational hated of the Jews, was his obsession with his own honor: he was a classical egomaniac, with an insatiable need for honor and recognition. Thus, when he was called to the king and asked, ”What should be done to a man whom the king wishes to honor,” his immediate assumption was that the king wished to honor himself (Est 6:6). There is delicious irony in the scene that follows, in which he is asked to lead his arch-enemy, Mordecai, through the streets of the city on a royal steed. Indeed, it was Mordecai’s refusal to bow and prostrate himself before him that initially triggered his anti-Semitic rage and lead to his murderous plan (3:5-6). By contrast, there is no indication that Mordechai was anything other than a modest, humble person.

The models of Rabbinic leadership in the Orthodox world, certainly in recent history, are marked by personal modesty. The Hafetz Hayyim never held any official position, but was a small man who earned his living traveling about Eastern Europe selling his books—yet he was universally beloved and respected as the gadol hador. A cousin of mine who is close to that world once commented that Rav Moshe Feinstein, who during the latter half of the twentieth century was considered the leading halakhic authority in North America, became so after the death of Rav Aharon Kutler because were attracted to him precisely by the sense of Torah authenticity they felt in his modest and unassuming demeanor. Similar stories—about the modesty of their dwelling and their unassuming personal bearing—are told about Rav Kook, about the Hazon Ish, about Rav Shakh, Rav Elyashev, and many others. More than flashy charisma, a rabbi was chosen because he embodied the values that the community cherished; he represented a kind of ideal, more learned and more pious, alter ego.

I would add here that one of the salient traits of my own teacher, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, is his singular modesty. This is expressed even in small, simple things: once, when he called me on the phone, he introduced himself simply by name—“this is Aharon Lichtenstein”—without any titles. At the funeral of Prof. Yitzhak Twersky, I was rather surprised not to see him in the crowd, but when they brought in the body I understood: he was a simple pallbearer. Once, when I was a student at his yeshiva, I accidentally dropped a pen on the floor during his class; the Rav promptly left his seat to pick it up for me.

I would now wish to turn to our parashah. Almost all of Sefer Vayikra consists of the presentation of laws; indeed, it can be read as one lengthy legal codex. Ramban refers to it as Brit Ohel Mo’ed, because it opens with God calling to Moses from the (newly erected) Tent of Meeting; thereafter, there is no further need for “calling,” so that each new section begins with the familiar formula (probably the most frequently repeated verse in the entire Torah) וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר, “And HE spoke to Moses, saying…” In the entire book, there are only two places in which we read narratives relating to actual events that happened: the first, in this parashah, tells of the dedication of the Tabernacle from a different perspective from that already seen in Exodus 40, including the tragic events surrounding the death of two of Aaron’s sons and their aftermath; second, a brief account of an incident in which a certain man cursed God’s name, and was judged and punished (Lev 24:10-12, 14, 23)—and even that, more than anything else, seems intended to teach us the law applicable in such a case.

The central and certainly the most dramatic event of the parashah is the death of Nadav and Avihu, who offered “strange fire” before the Lord in the festive day of dedication of the Tabernacle (Lev 10:1-5; I have discussed this many times in the past, and will not reiterate here). After this happens, Moses instructs the remaining priests—Aharon and his surviving sons Eleazar and Itamar—not to show any external sign of mourning. “Do not dishevel your heads [i.e., hair] and do not rend your garments … and do not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die” (vv. 6-7). Rather, they are to continue the ritual of Divine service, and allow their brethren, “the whole house of Israel,” to mourn and bewail this tragic event.

I find these verses quite extraordinary. What does it say about their attitude towards themselves and the public? And what did conversation between Moses and Aaron reveal? He seems to be saying: once you assume the mantle of the priesthood, you have no personal life, no individual persona, no family and, by implication, no ego at all! The anointing oil of God is upon you, and you cannot even allow yourself the personal ”luxury” of mourning your own son. You belong to the Temple and to your God, exclusively! (and cf. Lev 21:10-15)

But there is a certain limitation even to this self-abnegation. After the instruction to the priests not to drink wine while serving in the Temple, Moses sees that Aharon and his sons have not eaten the ram of the burnt-offering, as they should have, but burned it instead. Moses expected them to continue with the normal priestly routine, even though this was doubtless the worst day of their life on the personal level. Aaron answers: “… After such things happened to me, were I to eat the hatat would it be good in the eyes of God?” (v. 19)—and Moses accepted his answer.


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